Behavioral Targeting, What Ethics?

Earlier this month, Doug Wintz gave us an inspiring article in iMediaConnection.  The Ethics of Behavioral Targeting offers a glimpse into what behavioral targeting could be like in the offline future.  Transfixing our imaginations into the likeness of the futuristic worlds painted by author Philip Dick, Wintz helps us to question interactive advertising beyond the banner.  But there is a big leap between the 728×90 banner and the beams of light that could be reading our retina in the shopping malls. 

Several years ago people screamed about the use of cookies: “VIOLATION OF PERSONAL PRIVACY!”  The industry cried that we must educate the population so that they realize that cookies are not bad, spyware is bad.  Antispyware came out, and adware came out.  People now feel protected from persistent spyware and third-party cookies now get deleted 45% of the time.  The dust cleared from the cookie fight and yet cookies are still in common practice.  The funny part is that people still don’t understand cookies.  But the industry has moved on; it has stopped trying to educate and now the next crisis has moved to the forefront – behavioral targeting.

BT still involves the use of cookies but the technology is less of the issue.  It is the overall concept of tracking and oversight that people care about.  Once again there are those in the industry that are trying to educate, but then there are many of us that know that you can’t educate people coming from a position of fear.  Moreover, once politicians get involved it’s about swaying popular opinion and not about providing rational explanations.  Remember that some people get charged by the fight while others stay in the background, continuing to develop and position their cards so that they are ready when the dust clears.  A new crisis always moves to the forefront to replace the existing one, right?  Where will you be when that happens?  Battle scared or primed?

Is it ethical to behaviorally target?  Is the internet really free?  Is it ethical to target consumer behaviors like catalogers do?  Doug has a fair argument when he says we probably won’t even care by the time the technology is mainstream.  Right now there is kickback on behavioral targeting, but that doesn’t stop publishers and networks from offering it or from advertisers from buying it.

So where are the ethical lines in all of this?  Publishers use site-side analytics to track your patterned behavior while you are on their site.  It is their site.  You use much of it for free.  So is it ethical?  Is it okay for Safeway or Kroger to track your shopping habits in the supermarket?  You get discounts for using that shopper’s card that also tracks your behavior.  What about Amazon keeping track of your book-buying preferences?  You get recommendations right?  You get benefits in return for providing information about yourself, even online.  So where is the difference between what we have come to accept offline and what we protest online?

Why do people get so crazy about the web?  The point of the whole thing is to put advertisements that are more relevant in front of you.  Contextual advertising has done a great job at this and nobody seems to complain about that.  In fact a lot of people don’t even know that the links along the side of the Google and Yahoo pages are paid listings, nor would they necessarily care since they are usually relevant links that often lead to qualified destinations.  Relevance.  If Behavioral targeting has the ability to present a user with advertisements that are relevant, is there still an ethical violation? 

P-ersonal I-dentifiable I-nformation (PII) is the red line that can’t be crossed and yet it is crossed all the time in the offline realm.  I think that in the end it’s not a question of ethics.  It’s a question of fear.  The futuristic movies like the Minority Report scare people.  They don’t get it and other people take advantage of it to promote their own agendas (like politicians looking for platforms).

 Customer re-targeting introduces the ability to recognize customers – not anonymous individuals – anywhere on the web in real-time using first party ad serving.  Advertisers can recognize their existing customers, not based on events but based on customer profiles.  This is identical to what already goes on in the offline world.  A different message can be positioned to a customer than to a non-customer based on customer profiles – not based on event-based behaviors.  Is this a violation of privacy?  We can go around and around on this one, like we did with the cookie.  And it is the cookie battle that leads me to believe that the smoke will clear before we settle it.  When the next technical invasion comes to the forefront it too will shadow this one.  Maybe it’ll be iTV, which will be more invasive and wider-spread when it hits people while they are relaxing in their living rooms! 

You can go down the ethical rabbit hole if you want with behavioral targeting, just like you can jump into the political debate or stand up on the soap box and try to educate.  But frankly, people will continue to develop and drive forward with anonymous event-based targeting, customer re-targeting, site-side analytics and first party applications that empower advertisers to message to users with the most relevant information, advertisements and content.  Operating as if the dust will clear as oppose to getting caught up in the fight makes more sense.  Helping the web to become an increasingly more efficient use of people’s time with behavioral targeting techniques is not a violation of privacy, it is a provision of relevance.

Reactionary with Insight

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